topic clusters and keyword clusters

Topic Clusters and Keyword Clusters

In SEO by Kaomi Team

Before we dive into the subject of topic clusters and keyword clusters, we’d like to open with a few statistics.

With so much information available on our worldwide web coupled with reduced attention spans and the prevalence of voice search, the world of SEO is shifting. 

Rather than just matching keywords, search engines are trying to understand what the user wants and where they are in their journey. With this invaluable information, they can offer the best results for a query.

This is where topic clusters raise their clever little heads. (And it is also where smart businesses can outsmart their competition!)

The Evolution of SEO

Search engines are in the business of providing the most relevant results to a query. Searches are far more specific and contextual than ever, and as technology advances and user expectations soar, consistently delivering the right results is getting tricky.

The Hummingbird update rolled out in 2013, followed by RankBrain in 2015, brought significant changes to the SEO table. The focus was on improving user results using semantic search and other contextual information. Google realised that the way people were searching for information was changing, and to provide the right results, they needed to understand the user’s intent better. 

What is Semantic Search?

Semantic search differs from lexical searches as it looks for the search intent and not just direct word matches. This is the bottom line for the sweeping changes that have taken place.

Let’s take an example. Imagine your boss is standing in front of you with his hands on his hips and a scowl on his face saying, “I need to talk to you!” Your response to this would differ significantly from if an excited child were pulling on your sleeve with sparkling eyes, saying, “I need to talk to you!”

Semantics give meaning to a piece of content. As humans, we can respond to questions based on their context, but machines don’t have this capability, which is what Hummingbird and RankBrain were looking to rectify.

This marked the beginning of the shift from keywords to topic clusters.

What are Topic Clusters?

A topic cluster (or content hub) is a collection of web pages that are linked to a central topic or pillar page and to each other where relevant. While the pillar page will deal broadly with a subject, the cluster pages that link back to it will dive into the nuts and bolts of the main topic segment. 

A brilliant case study by Samuel Schmitt defines the various elements of a thriving topic cluster and their role. He says:

  • The main topic defines the purpose of the cluster.
  • The pillar page is the top page of the cluster.
  • The subpages cover subtopics.
  • Internal linking structures the cluster.
  • Hierarchical URLs reinforce the semantic of the cluster for the search engines.

If this isn’t 100% clear, read on. It will make more sense as we walk through the process.

Topic Clusters and Pillar Pages

The success of an SEO strategy using topic clusters and keyword clusters may require that you and your team head on back to the drawing board. 

When creating your pillar pages, you must be very clear that they deal with what you want to be known for. These are vital anchor pieces. Too many businesses are trying to wear too many hats, and while diversifying your services may be necessary to stay afloat in today’s economy, it wreaks havoc on your SEO.

Before crafting your pillar page, you will need to:

  • Examine your user persona.
  • Discover what your competitors are saying.
  • Find out what questions are being asked around the subject.
  • Create an outline.
  • Write the pillar page, including as many mediums as you can.

Pillar content lays the foundation for the information and the architecture of your site. This way, you can be sure that your topic clusters link back to relevant information and easy navigation. 

How Do You Create a Topic Cluster?

Creating a topic cluster is a mix of common sense and an in-depth knowledge of your business. There’s no shortcut, incidentally. You really will need to sit down and create a spreadsheet with all the ideas, good and bad, and then filter out the important bits. 

The skeleton looks like this:

  • Choose your main topic.
  • Brainstorm supporting subtopics.
  • Define your keywords.
  • Create your content.
  • Link it all together.

Topic Clusters in Practice

So, what does a topic cluster look like in the real world?

Let’s assume that you are a Personal Trainer with a focus on Yoga. One of your pillar pages would be a long-form piece on the broader topics of Yoga, unpacking its history and touching on the benefits. 

The topic clusters that revolve around this pillar page may look something like this:

  • Who should do Yoga?
  • The benefits of yoga for posture.
  • Can Yoga benefit elderly people?
  • Can Yoga help with weight loss?
  • Does Yoga help with anxiety?

These subtopics are all related to the main theme, which makes them highly relevant. Each piece of content, be it a blog, a video, or an infographic, will deep-dive into the subject and link back to the main pillar page.  

Some SEO managers prefer to start the process by creating the keyword clusters first. This isn’t a bad idea, as the research that goes into finding and organising the keywords and phrases that matter will probably create the most relevant topic clusters by default.

Why are Topic Clusters Important?

HubSpot spells this out for us, saying, “Organising your site content into clusters helps search engines distinguish your area of expertise and better understand the relationship between these pages.”

This allows for more, better traffic to your website. 

However, there is more to it. 

It’s all very well keeping the search engines happy, but we also want to keep our readers engaged and coming back for more.

User Intent

Each subtopic can be aligned with user intent in mind. When creating your keyword clusters (more on that in a minute), you can filter the how-to from the buy now queries. For example, a subtopic on what to expect from your first Yoga class will be of interest to someone ready to buy. They would be less interested in content dealing with what is Yoga. 

User Experience

Again, it’s all about the reader. Topic clusters logically group the most important information and the commonly asked questions into an easy-to-follow hierarchy. You are effectively creating a one-stop-content-shop for your audience. 

Benefits of Topic Clusters

Creating topic clusters is a surprisingly helpful way for businesses to define what their audience is interested in and how best to serve it up. The process serves to scrape away “the way we’ve always done it” and inject a fresh perspective.

  • Using topic clusters does wonders for your site navigation and user experience, offering your reader an organised, high-level view of the subject. If you have drawn someone in who is interested in Yoga, while they are browsing, they may find answers to questions that they haven’t thought of yet. 
  • This increases their time on your page, which indicates to the search engines that your site is relevant. This, in turn, increases your page authority.
  • Due to the way these topic clusters are linked, when one page ranks well, so do the others. You may even find that you occupy several top spots for a particular keyword. 
  • Topic clusters are optimised for search. Better rankings equal more traffic and, hopefully, more conversions.

What are Keyword Clusters?

Keyword clustering, or keyword grouping, is the process of putting related keywords together to provide context to the content.  

Why is this important? 

With natural language being used more in search queries, search engines have found that some users aren’t even using the most logical keywords that we would expect to see in a search. A conversation with your device may go something like, “Siri, where should I have dinner tonight?” and your trusty device will display restaurants or takeaways within a certain radius of your current location.

These same food outlets target keywords like a family-friendly restaurant, Chinese takeout, or best ribs in Durban. However, your request has been translated by the search engines to determine your intent. They’ve amended your voice search to look for the answer to “find restaurants near me.”

We know that more than 20% of mobile search queries on Google are voice-assisted, long-tail keyword searches are a thing, and people talk differently than they type. These facts point to keyword clusters as a necessary function in today’s SEO.

Benefits of Keyword Clusters

Going through the process of creating keyword clusters and implementing them in your SEO strategy comes with some pretty incredible benefits.

  • Search engines can make accurate connections between pieces of content.
  • Keyword clusters create more comprehensive content which positions you as an authority in your niche.
  • Clusters improve your website architecture which makes more sense to search engines.
  • Clustered keywords are easier for readers to consume and provide a natural base to cover all areas of the topic we’re discussing. 

How Do You Cluster Keywords?

Now, onto the important stuff. How can we create the right keyword clusters for our niche?

Moz has very kindly published one of the longest and most comprehensive articles on this topic, which you should certainly read if you have the time. For the sake of brevity, though, we’re going to run through the main points.

  1. Collect all the words.

Start broad and use as many sources as possible to gather the words and phrases that relate to your subtopic. There are a bunch of online tools that can help you with this task, including Google keyword planner, Google trends, Google auto-suggest, WordStream’s keyword suggestion tool, and Answer The Public. Sit down with your team and brainstorm to add to this list.

Depending on your subject matter, you may end up with hundreds of words. That’s okay, right now you’re still in the research phase so just pop these into a spreadsheet and keep going.

  1. Create logical groupings.

The idea is to create thematically related keyword groups. To use our previous example, as a food outlet you may form high-level groups such as restaurant, takeaway, entertainment. Within the restaurant grouping, you would put phrases such as family-friendly, Chinese, a la carte. 

You will see a natural taxonomy forming as you progress further.

  1. Note the modifiers.

Modifiers add that last vital element in determining user intent. Note how users have used words like buy, find, call, where, when, compare, review. As soon as these words appear together in a search string alongside any number of your chosen keywords you can attribute intent with a reasonable amount of accuracy.

This process takes time and effort, no doubt. But once you’ve completed the keyword clusters you have a powerful tool that invigorates your SEO, provides a laser focus for your content plan, and benefits your PPC campaigns. 

The Difference Between Topic Clusters and Keyword Clusters

Topic clusters and keyword clusters are integrally linked in your search for the best SEO strategy ever. 

Topic clusters are made up of the questions people are asking about your product or service. They are a deep dive into a subtopic related to your pillar page. Together, they break down and expand upon the important elements of the pillar page providing all the information a user would require in one place. 

Keyword clusters make up the more granular part of your content. These are the exact words and phrases, the word groupings, the foundational themes of user searches. Keyword clusters also include the various hats that these words wear in the form of modifiers that give us insight into the user’s intent.  

Wrapping Up

As internet users looking for accurate answers, the benefits of using topic clusters and keyword clusters are clear. Users are using more detailed search queries and often leaving out keywords altogether, which means that businesses require an SEO strategy based on user intent.

Google’s ever-advancing algorithms are focusing on the quality of the information that you are offering. While keywords are still a factor, the way they are structured is more important than simply having them on a page.

Content is still king, 

Do you have questions? Let’s sync.